The Hills Are Alive! (THAA) is one of Australia’s most credible boutique festivals. Indeed, not only has THAA maintained a homegrown focus, but it’s also provided a platform for emerging acts. This month, the Victorian event will celebrate its 10th anniversary.
THAA originated in 2009 as a word-of-mouth fest, directed by brothers Aidan and Rhett McLaren. They were raised on the site – a fifth generation family farm in South Gippsland. Says Aidan: “Our father was a musician and he’d converted an old dairy into a rehearsal room where bands would always come and practise – ’cause there was nowhere else within 50 kilometres to practise. So we grew up loving music.”
Later, the boys themselves gigged in bands. Aidan, then the drummer in a band called Long Walk Home, moved to Berlin – as did Rhett. But, broke and weary of the harsh European winters, they eventually decided to return to Australia. First, the pair planned “a welcome home party” on “The Hill”, as Aidan calls it, with their old muso mates in Melbourne. Luckily, the McLarens’ folks said “yes” – the proviso being that the bash be “invite-only”.
The “friends-of-friends” gathering has since developed into a counter-cultural brand that remains centred on the music community. The now three-day camping festival still has a single main stage – and is restricted to 2,500 revellers. There is even a sister event, NYE On The Hill (NYEOTH). Crucially, THAA is known for its canny curation – the McLarens were early supporters of Vance Joy, Courtney Barnett, Tkay Maidza, Marlon Williams, Tash Sultana and Amy Shark. In fact, Aidan recently launched THAA Records (with the UNIFIED Music Group), signing the EDM LANKS and dream-popster BATTS.
For the 10th THAA, the McLarens have secured past headliners like REMI (as the hip-hopper’s managers!), Alice Ivy (fresh from showcasing at SXSW in Austin, Texas), Dorsal Fins and Saskwatch. Plus, they’ve enticed 2012 faves Playwrite, reuniting especially, and Jackson Firebird from Mildura. Debut performers include Ali Barter, Thandi Phoenix and Heaps Good Friends. “It’s gonna be a big party, for sure,” Aidan declares.
Eight years ago, THAA introduced stand-up comedians – the event serendipitously falling the weekend before the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. “A lot of people come for the comedy as much as the music,” notes Aidan. And 2018’s edition will welcome back Bob Franklin (of Please Like Me fame). “He played last year and has become a bit of a cult figure on The Hill.”
Music Feeds: At this point, THAA is so well branded, and well positioned, that you could go for flossy internationals. But you’ve chosen to keep the focus homegrown. Why?
Aidan McLaren: Yeah, I think because we kind of existed outside of the industry as musicians ourselves – in that we didn’t really have a lot of support. We probably weren’t good enough, to be honest, for anyone to really care! But what it meant was that then we knew of all these amazing bands that were in the Melbourne scene, or bands that we’d swapped gigs with in Sydney or Adelaide or Brisbane.
I still consider us very lucky that the site, the festival, exists close to I think the best music city in the world – and so there’s been no need to ever look further afield than Australia. There’s more than enough incredible talent here.
We’re kind of lucky that, because of that initial start, the 12 bands who played were incredibly genre-diverse. So what that’s allowed is that every year we’re not tied into a genre. We can have an electronic act and then we can have a reggae act and then an indie act and then a hip-hop act. That also means that there’s heaps more breadth to choose from as far as programming 30 amazing bands who are Australian.
A lot of them will come from Melbourne, but we try to get as many from around the country as well. I think the crowd really love that. People who come to the festival tend to have some sort of connection to the act that’s playing, in some way – as opposed to having, say, big internationals that might sell more tickets, but it might not be the people who are into the ethos of the festival or who connect with that as well.
MF: You’re not in any way doing a typical festival. But, generally, I think people don’t really understand how festivals are programmed. People are often like, “Why can’t you have this act?” “Why can’t you have that act?” They don’t realise that acts often tour in an album cycle. Sometimes they’re doing headlining tours and don’t want to do a festival. What are the things that you’re negotiating?
AM: Yeah, well, I can only speak for the events that we run. But, nowadays, we try to have a certain amount of acts that people know and love. They would generally form our top-tier acts. But there are challenges with that. As you mentioned, they might not be in cycle or they might have exclusivity from other festivals that lock them out of even playing our festival in the first place – which is quite challenging as a smaller event. Obviously the cost – we keep the numbers capped at a certain level which limits our overall budget. So that’s another consideration, I guess, at that top-tier.
But we just always try to get a really great mix. Sometimes, as a festival booker, I might be talking to an act that I love and it might be two or three years later that they actually play. It’s kind of one of the good things about having THAA and NYOTH is discussions about an act that we think would be a perfect fit might not work [at] this event, but it might work for NYE or it might work for THAA in a couple of years down the track.
But the other big consideration for us – and touching on what you said earlier about our programming – is that we are constrained by budget. So the way we’ve had to build our festival is by finding acts really, really early in their career. So we would go out to three to four gigs every week – we arrive early, we watch all the support bands – and over the years we’ve had some of the biggest acts out of Australia now who played our festival early in their career. But the only way that could happen is because we had them before any other festivals did or before they had a big single that blew up.
And we still try to keep as true to that as possible. So we’re always trying to showcase new acts – partly because we love showing our audience new music, [but] also literally because that allows us to run the festival. If we can get acts before they really take off – and get them at a price that we can afford – hopefully, by the time the festival comes around, more people know about them and the lineup is really strong.
MF: What acts are you most proud about discovering, or platforming, early?
AM: Oh, there’s a heap. There’s some that are just personal for me as a music lover, and then there’s some that are a little bit more obvious in terms of scale. We had Vance Joy – I think it was even his first festival or very early on. That year  we had Courtney Barnett, Vance Joy, REMI, Saskwatch – there was all these acts… It was only a one-night event then as well. I mean, that was a really proud year. Even Royal Blood from the UK were on the lineup and then had to pull out because something had happened two weeks before the festival. Then about a year later, they were selling out stadiums. So it was like, “Oh, that’s what happened!”
MF: Talk us through the Australian acts on this bill who people might not be familiar with, but should be – the acts who are still breaking.
AM: BATTS, I think, is really incredible. She’s played The Hill once before, but she’s just a real talent. She’s got a lot of stuff coming up in the pipeline that I guess people don’t know about yet that will sort of happen over the next 12 months. She’s captivating live…
Dear Seattle are gonna be one of the biggest rock bands in the country within the next two years. Their live show is crazy. Their whole next tour is completely sold-out – and a lot of people probably wouldn’t even realise that, ’cause their online presence is good, but it’s actually the word-of-mouth [factor] and live following that’s really impressive.
Heaps Good Friends are a completely genre-less switch-up out of Adelaide. I think they’re really unique; really quirky. There’s a Japanese band that I used to love, Cornelius, and Heaps Good Friends musically almost I feel [are similar] – I don’t think there’s anything else in the country that sounds like that. So they’re fascinating.
Then [there’s] some other acts that people may or may not know like These New South Whales. I just think they’re hilarious, but also a really great band.
Who else? Jamatar. He is an amazing electronic musician who uses a lot of chiptune elements like live Gameboy. He’s reprogrammed all these old game sounds. But, then, he has this incredible visual live show – and [it’s] very early days for him, but I think he’s again another one that’s quite interesting.
Cool Out Sun are just brand-new. They haven’t even released a song officially yet, but I’ve seen them live twice – and they will be one of the highlights of the festival. It’s Afrobeat, amazing rhythms, crazy percussion. Their debut record is gonna drop this year. Sensible J actually from REMI is the live drummer in this band and N’fa Jones, from 1200 Techniques and his own projects – they’re in this band with a bunch of other amazing people. I’ve heard some of their tunes and I’ve seen them twice and both times the reaction has just been crazy for a band that people don’t know about. So them, for sure!
MF: There’s a lot of discussion about diversity, and gender balance, on festival line-ups – and you do have awesome female acts like Ali Barter, Alice Ivy and Thandi Phoenix. Who do you think is going to explode and change the game?
AM: Again, I think BATTS on this lineup is gonna go really well. Alice Ivy has heaps of potential and is doing really, really well. Alex The Astronaut – she’s up-and-running. I think she just sold out her first Corner show and, again, [it’s] just really genuine, honest songwriting. When someone sounds really authentic to themselves, they have a lot of potential and people can connect with it.
MF: It was interesting when Falls Festival had Daryl Braithwaite on their lineup this summer – listed next to DRAM. It shows that there’s a young audience for what might be termed ‘heritage artists’. I think James Reyne is really excited about this trend
AM: Did you say James Reyne? I used to work at The Cornish Arms Hotel many years ago and he played one day and I couldn’t believe how many of his songs I knew. I was just like, “This is amazing.” So, yeah, I’d happily have him anytime!
MF: Maybe you’ve just answered this question, but I wondered if there was a veteran Australian act that you would love to book now? If there’s someone you could see fitting into THAA’s environment?
AM: I guess it depends how heritage… We had Dan Kelly a few years ago on Hills. Obviously, he’s not that age, but he was amazing – or having Regurgitator at NYE, which was almost starting to fall towards that way. But, yeah, I think James Reyne would probably fit – not on THAA so much, because THAA for us is still about breaking new artists, but maybe within NYEOTH, for example, where it’s a little bit broader.
But, again, someone like Neil Finn would be incredible… It’s kinda anyone who musicians really look up to. Obviously, the scale is next level but, for us, Paul Kelly or someone like that would be a dream, because every single person involved thinks [he] has left this amazing legacy and continues to innovate. I think that’s also a big thing for us – [we’re] more inclined to put on heritage acts if they’re still making great music, even if a lot of people don’t know about it, as opposed to [them] just playing one song from 40 years ago or something like that.
But those acts got massive for a reason – and they’re great. So we’re open to it, for sure. The price tag might restrict us, I believe. But, in theory, if they wanted to play and we felt our crowd would be into it – and our crowd are very open. I think one of the luckiest things is that a lot of the acts that we put in front of our crowd they don’t know and they still have a great time. So, as long as it’s good, then our crowd are pretty responsive to that.
The Hills Are Alive 2018 – 10th Anniversary Edition is going down this month from Friday, 23rd — Sunday, 25th March. Peep the full lineup & ticketing details below.
The Hills Are Alive 2018 Lineup
Alex The Astronaut
Cool Out Sun
Heaps Good Friends
Horns Of Leroy
Jackson Firebird (Reunion Show)
Playwrite (Reunion Show)
Remi (With Full Live Band)
These New South Whales
Zoe Fox And Therocket Clocks
The Hills Are Alive 2018
Tickets on sale now
Friday, 23rd — Sunday, 25th March 2018
The Farm, 90 Minutes Outside Melbourne
Tickets: Official Website